Last night’s all-star game in Phoenix marked the halfway point (well, a little past) of what has been a wild and wacky Major League Baseball season that has featured a number of wide-ranging storylines so far.
There was the unceremonious end to the career of Manny Ramirez, Washington Nationals’ manager Jim Riggleman stepping down from his post after his team went on a lengthy winning streak, and the continuing gong-show that is the L.A. Dodgers’ ownership situation.
And if you are a fan of either the Toronto Blue Jays or Minnesota Twins, you certainly haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about as your teams currently sit below .500.
There have been some pretty impressive performances to talk about, however, with Jose Bautista continuing to smash the long ball for the Jays, and pitchers Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay having fantastic campaigns to date.
But when you take a look at the NL Central standings, the most shocking story from the first half of the 2011 season is staring right in front of you—and probably has caused many people to say out loud: “Why are the Pittsburgh Pirates having a winning season? And why are they only a game out of the division lead?”
Trust me, I’ve been doing the same thing (and also have been pinching myself repeatedly to make sure it’s not a dream).
If you read my column at the start of the season, I took a couple of slight jabs at the Pirates in this space, joking that they were out of the playoff race before the season began and that fans should hop onto the bandwagon while they were still bad.
But lo and behold, we’re more than halfway through the 162-game season and there is actual legit discussion about the Pirates being in the playoff mix.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the history of the Pirates over recent times, they have become the whipping boys of major-league baseball for nearly two decades and haven’t had a winning record since 1992.
That last winning season 19 years ago may have been the halcyon days for modern-day fans of the Pirates’ organization as that team sported players such as Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and Doug Drabek on the roster.
In fact, the team was leading the Atlanta Braves 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the NLCS that year, with an opportunity to head to the World Series for the first time since they won it all back in 1979.
But the Braves came roaring back with three unanswered runs to take the win and head to the Fall Classic. And when Bonds headed to the San Francisco Giants during the off-season, the downfall of the Pirates soon began.
Year after year after year, the Pirates’ fan base would suffer through dismal team after dismal team, and would watch as many of their young talented players headed off to greener pastures.
And in a town well-known for its passionate baseball supporters, the Pirates had fell far behind the championship teams in the city in the NFL’s Steelers and the NHL’s Penguins.
There wasn’t a whole lot of hype about the Pirates yet again going into this season, with the most optimistic forecasts having them finish in fifth place in the NL Central, .
Instead, the Pirates are sporting a 47-43 record and sit just a game behind the Milwaukee Brewers
and St. Louis Cardinals for the division lead,.
But the question remains: can the Pirates actually make a run towards playing not only meaningful baseball in September, but also make a playoff appearance?
With the Brewers and Cardinals both having bigger names and deeper rosters, the answer might be no.
However, the perennial cellar-dwelling Tampa Bay Rays were in the same situation against the Boston Red Sox and N.Y. Yankees in the AL East in 2008—and they made it all the way to the World Series.
And with the Pirates success so far this season, history just might be repeating itself.